By John Swartz
The House of Commons suspended until April 20, but is now being recalled for noon Tuesday in order to pass legislation on a $27 billion financial aid package.
“The recall notice does go out to all the MPs, but what happens here, because of the health issues we’re in front of right now, all of the whips and house leaders for each of the four parties have instructed only a select number of MPs from each party to actually come,” said Simcoe North MP and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons Bruce Stanton. By arrangement among the parties Only 32 MPs will have to make the trip to Ottawa.
The makeup of those being asked to attend is proportional to the numbers when the full house is sitting. There will be 14 Liberals, 11 Conservatives, 3 each from the NDP and Bloc Quebecois, 1 Green and Stanton.
“It turns out I will be there because the speaker is in self-isolation at the moment.”
Stanton will be presiding over a historic moment. There have only been 12 recalls, the first in 1944, the most recent September 8, 1992. This time Stanton will oversee a couple of firsts for parliamentary procedure.
“It’s a first in a sense there’s never been a recall that I know of where the attendance is by necessity restricted this way. I don’t think we’ve had that situation. There will also be an order, I expect, that will permit members in the normal debate on the bill – normally they can’t participate in the debate without being at their own seat – probably because of the necessities of social distancing the house will need to permit them to be recognized from a seat that’s not their own, so they can sit further apart.”
So 32 it is. However, that doesn’t mean there can’t be party crashers.
“We do have MPs privileges. When the house is called no one can prevent you from coming to the House of Commons, even whips. You would be doing so against the advice of the whip and the house leader and probably the leader of the party, so not a good thing to do.”
It wouldn’t be a good idea to make the news at 6 with a grandstanding appearance if one is not selected to attend.
“Especially with the backdrop of what we are doing here,” Stanton said. “The last thing anyone wants to see is people playing politics. This is not the time for that. I think you will see on Tuesday there will be great, constructive and collaborative approach to making sure the government of the day has the tools it needs to get on with helping workers and businesses get through this.”
All Stanton knew when reached by phone were general details of what the order of business will be.
“I haven’t seen the bill yet. We don’t know what the details are yet. It would appear they’re going to have some kind of procedural motion at the start of the afternoon that will allow some debate, a period in committee of the whole for members to ask questions of the pertinent ministers that are there.”
With a 338 member house, 32 seems like a small number, would they have to waive quorum?
“Quorum is only 20,” Stanton said. The next obvious question regarding such low numbers is, could the house be recalled and only have 20 members from one party on hand to pass some piece of legislation?
“There’s not a party consideration, it says 20 members present, and that can include the speaker too.”
Stanton does know the main order of business, other than procedural, will be about the prime minister’s announced financial aid to Canadians measures.
“That’s correct. It will only be that bill,” said Stanton. “Some things the government can do without legislating, but they’re limited by legislation in others.”
For example, changes to employment insurance, specifically the reduction to a one week waiting period, have to be changed by legislation, while others can be changed by regulation and the House doesn’t need to be involved.
Stanton believes this is only round one and there may be another recall or two before the House resumes sitting on a regular schedule.
“Everything I’m looking at shows all of the social shutdown the country is going through is going to have to continue for some time here to keep the number of cases low so the number of hospitalizations can be accommodated.”
He also expects all the parties to cooperate with the government through the crisis. So far there has been very little political grandstanding like we see on the nightly news from the United States.
“With any luck and good graces we will at least help people get through it. Everyone is going to feel the weigh in some fashion. If we stay on that track, and as you say, compared to what we are seeing south of the border where they’re still making partisan shots and playing the usual games that way, that’s not helping Americans out at all.”
“This is the time you’ve got to put the interests of people ahead of any kind of political consideration. As an opposition party I think you still need to ask questions and use inquiries to make sure the government hasn’t left anything out. At the same time, we as MPs owe it to the government to let them know what we’re hearing from people in our ridings.”